Sunday, September 2, 2012

Desperately Seeking a Twit/Utopia…unrequited ambition?

Tweeps! We can make this work. 

This week I finished reading Twitter’s book of the moment, Greg Jericho’s The Rise of the Fifth Estate. Kudos to Jericho for taking on a subject whose permanence is but a timeline scroll away and whose 140-character limit can be as pithy or as devastating as any more substantial tome.

The peoples of the earth have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of cosmopolitan right is therefore not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right of humanity. Only under this condition can we flatter ourselves that we are continually advancing towards a perpetual peace.
Kant, (1795) ‘Third Definitive Article on a Perpetual Peace’ from Perpetual Peace

Jericho and Kant and the Twitter promise
Jericho (aka @GrogsGamut) has done a remarkable job in penning an early account of the Twitterverse in Australia and it will be a text I shall recommend for future students of politics and media. Jericho himself was famously ‘outed’ as a tweepster and blogger (see Ch. 6 ‘How to become a hashtag’). It was nonetheless a little unsettling to finish the book as the Charlotte Dawson episode was unfolding and twitter chatter turned to trolling. On the upside, as I write this, Jane Caro (@JaneCaro) is setting the timeline alight with a campaign for women to #destroythejoint following the (oh no, not again) misogyny displayed by Alan Jones.

The Twitterverse for me is a fascinating proto-community. Regular readers will know I am something of a Kantian idealist and this week in class we happened to explore a little more of Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ and its hope for a better world. My primary research is about establishing a security community in East Asia where trust is the foundation of pursuing better relations and diminishing the likelihood of war. So naturally these elements come together as the subject of this post. How? Get on board my roller coaster…

The beauty of Jericho’s book was that it offers great context to what I have spent the last little while casting my Kantian aspirations towards. It is true, I follow just a very narrowcast version of the Twitterverse, one which allows engagement with other Australian politics tweeps (not, though, #auspol), friends and colleagues throughout the tertiary education sector, students—past and present, journalists, news sources and a wonderful group of @612brisbane ABC Radio tweepsters (more on them later…I think we’ve almost attained Kantian perfection there…). I also reside in the Japanese twitterverse. (Oh, and some people like my emoticons, also inspired by Japanese social media… (00)(o~o)(**)

I ‘was joined’ to the Twitterverse back in 2010 by guest lecturer Todd Winther, @toddocracy, in the course Politics and Media which I was teaching at the time. A graduate of my university and now PhD candidate in polsci at another, I’d asked Todd along to share his knowledge of Australian political parties and their use of social media in campaigning. Twitter was still new-ish, and I was not a particular fan of social media at the time. It was a terrific lecture, the students were engaged and in the end Todd, supported by the students, insisted I demonstrate the ease of joining. So there and then, I became a live experiment in my own lecture theatre…howzat for a student-centred approach…even my handle @psephy is a student-coined name—after my (apparent…who knew?) obsession with convincing them all to become psephologists.

I was unsure and tentative; kept the account locked for quite some time and used an avatar that, like the dentists, wouldn’t reveal my identity. After about two months or so just dropped off. I just didn’t seem to get it. 

I rejoined in October 2011. Something I’d read in that weekend’s paper about QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce’s bold grounding of the planes in his stoush with unions made me curious again about Twitter. I flicked the switch on my iDevice and I’ve been back ever since. (And after a few experimental avatars, I've finally revealed the 'real' me.)

From Twitter, I’ve branched out into the blogosphere as well. Indeed, my experience here reflects the path of others that Jericho writes about—really, I was finding that I wanted to explore some of the twitter discussions in more depth (see the sidebar to your right). It also gave me the impetus to do something I’d been toying with for a while. As an academic, we are under pressure to publish regularly which can be quite a challenge with a high teaching load and other demands. I thought the blog might also be a way to ‘draft’ ideas, tease them out before formalising their publication. More recently, I’m exploring the idea of using the blog as an extra teaching ‘space’ to work with my students, to follow up lecture points or additional material. Mostly, I am just enjoying the comparative freedom that writing a blog allows, compared with the stiff and overripe formality of academic prose. I’ve no expectation of becoming a journalist, nor do I expect to ever earn an income from this form of expression. I am an academic, I do have the privilege of being published and that is fine for me, for now.

What excites, or excited, me about the idea of the ‘Fifth Estate’ as explored by Jericho was that I saw it as a dynamic engaged community where those who have a public conscience or public role could interact in a kind of cyber-village square. Previously, academics in universities, journalists in newsrooms, politicians in their parliaments, diplomats in embassies and people in shopping centres might have accidentally bumped into each other but Twitter allowed those boundaries to be circumvented. I find myself involved in the most interesting exchanges ranging from my narrowcast speciality of Japanese security to the merits of football codes to coffee. Of course, politics figures prominently and I have ‘met’ a lot of wonderful tweeps along the way. There is, for the most part, a sense of what Kant perhaps regarded as the foedus pacificum, a pacific federation, a place where we might seek to end all wars for good.

Alas, as we’ve seen, the Twitterverse is not immune from bullying practices. It makes us pause to reflect what is it about human nature that drives some to do this. Hobbes and Kant and others pondered this human fallibility centuries ago, I guess it is folly of me to think we might be emerging from this confining cocoon. The ‘trolling’ issue of the past week has discoloured the mostly good that we should believe Twitter can be. I remain a Kantian optimist. As another of my favourite tweeps @Drag0nista blogged recently, this is just as much about what we want from Twitter as well as standing up to the unpleasantness and say ‘it’s out of line’.

There is a Twitterverse micro-community however that seems to be getting it right. Informally known as the #612tweepsters, it includes presenters, producers, regular guests and avid listeners of 612ABC (@612brisbane), which has a following of some 22, 770. It usually starts in the pre-dawn with Breakfast presenter Spencer Howson (@SpencerHowson), continues through to Afternoons’ Kelly Higgins-Devine (@kellyhd), Drive’s Tim Cox (@timcoxtalks) and Evenings with @reblev (Rebecca Levingston). They do a brilliant job of engaging their audience on air through Twitter and always in positive and enriching ways. Through the #612tweepsters I’ve met @EvanontheGC, @Kin__ , @JCBOONAH, @SalPiracha, @armac152, @theJenHansen and @RealBrettHansen, @snoozen, @Rastas000, @EmuHandyman and many others. They form the core of a group of people I’ve come to appreciate as using the Twitterverse for good. We would do well to replicate it throughout. It has also surprised me that I have embraced social media in this way.

Greg Jericho’s book reminds us of the potential that a Twitter-led ‘fifth estate’ might promise. It’s achieved much in a relatively short period of time. We can engage, we can communicate, we can do better. William Lane had to take his Utopian ideals to Paraguay; we can all do it from the comfort of our own homes, in front of our various devices.

Many years ago, I opted out of formal political parties because I got tired of the pettiness, the standover tactics, the unfulfilled promise. That disengagement, I fear, has perhaps contributed in part to the lacklustre politics of today. I shan’t retreat from Twitter in the same way. I’ve learnt that to be a part of a community you have to contribute to making it the community you want it to be. I’ve learnt to practice the politics I teach…

For anyone who wants to understand Twitter and politics, read Grog’s book; anyone who wants to dip a tentative toe in the Twitter waters, the join the tweepsters at 612ABC.

(Disclaimer [to the extent it is required]: I have been a guest commentator on 612ABC and ABC Gold Coast as a direct result of my Twitter engagement; I’d have still written those good things about the #612tweepsters even if that hadn’t happened)